News Feature | April 20, 2017

Judge Tosses Pollution Verdict Against Cabot Oil & Gas

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson

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U.S. District Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson of the Middle District of Pennsylvania reversed a $4.24 million award late last month which had been given to families who claimed that their water supply was polluted.

The claim was made against Cabot Oil & Gas, a natural gas company. Judge Carlson cited weak evidence and inappropriate comments from the plaintiffs’ counsel in his decision to vacate the verdict.

The Legal Intelligencer reported that the plaintiffs “had alleged that, beginning in 2008, Cabot negligently contaminated their drinking well water supplies when it conducted natural gas ‘exploration and exploitation activities’ in Dimock.”

A major challenge in the case had started when the plaintiffs stated “that problems with the water supply began before the drilling activities started.”

In an emailed statement obtained by the Intelligencer, “New York attorney Leslie L. Lewis, who represented the plaintiffs, said the decision did not fully reflect what occurred in the courtroom over the course of the 10-day trial.”

Carlson stated that the challenge brought up in the case “created a ‘cause and effect’ problem that was ‘never adequately explained by the plaintiffs, who time and again either evaded this issue, attempted to impeach their own stipulation, or endeavored to provide some alternative explanation for their own prior representations.’”

At the trial, Carlson said that the counsel of the plaintiff had “offered new theories regarding Cabot's alleged activities near the drill sites before the stipulated date, and made inappropriate references to administrative proceedings with the Department of Environmental Protection and settlements Cabot had entered into with people who had previously been plaintiffs in the case.”

The Intelligencer added that Carlson said “the jury may have come under the impression that it wasn't getting the full story regarding the claims and that some facts were being hidden from them.”

"On the issues of causation and damages the plaintiffs' presentation left the jury largely at sea, invited appeals to sympathy and speculation, and provided us with few principled ways to explain or justify a damages award of $4.24 million for the nuisance and interference with the plaintiffs' use and enjoyment of their property," Carlson said.

Even though Cabot had asked “Carlson to simply dismiss the plaintiffs' claims, Carlson said the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to allow for a new trial on the claims.”

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Courtroom, April 2014" Karen Neoh © 2014 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/